The apocalypse was quiet. It had a way about it, a certain charm. It could be called graceful. It was taking a long time.
People prepared for an apocalypse that they could take up arms against, bunker down with. People hoarded filtered water, canned corn, dry milk, batteries. They published books on how to get things done in the new post-world, a world that they always imagined as being much like our own, only missing one or two key things. They might imagine, for example, that survivors would reemerge onto a planet stripped of all vegetable and plant life. First, the animals would grow vicious and then starve. It would be important to hoard as many of these animals as possible, pack them in salt and hide them away to keep. You’d want to have a supply of emergency seed to grow in a secure location, maybe using sterilized soil that you had already hoarded. Then you’d want to gather a crew. One muscle man with a heart of gold, a scientist type, an engineer, a child, and somebody that you thought maybe you could love, if you survived long enough to love them.
I realized that dreams are boring, yes, but people are never boring.
If you use the dream as a vehicle to access people’s interior lives and obsessions, that’s interesting.
I disturbed a nest of baby rabbits under the catmint as I hacked back the dead sprawl. Something moved under my loppers. Five nestlings, each the size of a small teacup, curled into each other, wrapped in a tender blanket of down shed from their mother. Eyes closed, mewling and wriggling in my grasp. I wanted to protect them, and I wanted to kill them.
Baby rabbits, or kits, as they are known, have no smell, apparently so predators don’t detect them. Now they would smell of me. Their mother would reject them because of their new sweaty-hand-and-dank-garden-glove scent. I felt for this sweet brood, but turned instead to my garden. This is where I coaxed blue campanula to come back after winter, and tried to keep order among the reckless bee balm and catmint. A mother rabbit, a doe, can birth six litters in a season. I didn’t want them ransacking my garden, nibbling my asters to stubs, disrupting the line of creeping phlox by chewing them ragged. Nor did I want my dog to find sport in them, playing a macabre game with a score tallied in limp bodies. I gave the brood to our neighbors, who passed them along the block to Illinois Bob, an obsessive collector of rodents and other beasts. Motherless, those thumpers died, but at least not on my watch.
Later, in summer, I found a lone kit, wet from my hound’s mouth, lying damaged on the lawn, roaring silently. His mouth stretched wide, tiny see-through teeth vibrating. He made me think of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” the image that stares out from dorm room posters and kitchen towels and mouse pads, reminding us that human distress can spiral out for eternity. It’s called “Skrik” in Danish, capturing the moment in a life when raw pain prevails.
I filmed my tiny screamer on my phone, thinking it might be useful for some later project, as a record of anguish. I filmed as he ran out of shriek, until his mouth barely quivered ajar. He no longer had strength to raise his head from the grass. His crying slowly lost its desperation, trailing into a soundless mew. Did he cry for his mother? Was she hiding under the wild mess of golden rod and dock by the garage, or watching from a burrow beneath the deck? I knelt beside him, a surrogate parent offering comfort by being present. As if a parent’s presence alone could be enough. A parent of any species. In this case, a human mother with a camera, recording his torment. Watching him, I felt both invested in his suffering and detached. Sympathy and cool voyeurism coiled together. I shivered.
Read this breathtaking essay by Toni Nealie, an interview with debut novelist Scott Cheshire, and more in our new issue, here.
Feature image by James Casebere, Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY #8), 2010, digital chromogenic print.
Yes, I wish there were more books about the female experience of sex and drugs and toughness, but, as a woman, if you write about something that’s explicitly calling into question how men and women interact and what’s expected of them, then that’s what your book is about and those are the terms on which it’s evaluated. It’s considered a man-hating book or a feminist book, and the author is treated as having written a manifesto or an idea book rather than literary fiction, whereas, if a man writes a book with those elements, it’s judged differently. That bothers me.
The judge called it “one of the most unspeakably vicious and brutal crimes in the history of the state,” which sounds a bit harsh to me. The young lad who killed that nun with the hacksaw in west Clare was surely worse, although they did say he was insane. That was the problem you see—Da wasn’t insane, not the gibbering, cuckoo’s nest sort of insane at any rate. The kind you could make hay with. The doctors, in fairness to them, did every schizo test under the sun, but nothing stuck. He wasn’t biting. Sitting there in the chair with a puss on him like it was his granny after getting aerated for no good reason. The shrinks (I love that word, “shrink”—when I was small I used imagine a load of scientists in a lab shrinking brains till you couldn’t fit any more bad thoughts in them) weren’t exactly falling over themselves to believe it either. True enough, his father—only allegedly, mind—and grandfather were convicted murders, but sure what was that save bad breeding? You’d get that anywhere, Malin to Mizen. Now a genetic predisposition towards homicide, let alone a family curse, that was something intelligent people found difficult to swallow.
One could claim that each poem herein exists on the knife edge between what we call the everyday and what we call the night, that liminal space between what we see and what we sense, playing that game we play every morning upon waking, trying to remember the dream we are just now leaving, and how it will color our day, if we are open to it.
Nick Flynn guest-edited our poetry for this issue. Read Garrett Burrrell, Cynthia Cruz, Graham Foust, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths, whose poems are “are all speaking from some otherside, some subterranean, somewhere outside the chatter.”
George Orwell famously wrote “no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Yet polemical fiction is rarely fun to read.
Most writers and other artists have waited tables at some point in their lives. But I think that if you survive it, you don’t want to think about it ever again. You want to just forget that dirty, shitty job you had to do to pay the rent. You don’t want to dive back into it and relive it. That’s my theory, anyway. But really, it’s a gold mine. It’s a perfect representation of the American caste system. You have people who are thought of as worthless—people who are undocumented, working for very little money, barely surviving in this country—and, just around the corner, millionaires eating off the plate those other guys just washed. There’s so much meat there.
Rosalynn was born in the house next door to Jimmy Carter, and he’s going to be ninety in October, so they’ve known each other almost a century. They know each other as well as any two people can. Everybody who ever worked with Carter knew she was his closest advisor, and that was true at Camp David. She’s the one who proposed it. There wouldn’t have been a summit at Camp David if Rosalynn hadn’t put it on the table. So she’s an unacknowledged piece of the peace process.
- Guernica: Are you inspired by the particularly lowdown stuff that goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant? The prose in this book surges with the bawdier stories.
- Merritt Tierce: It’s just an inverse relationship. You have to rise to it or else it’s just gross. Why read about it if it’s not beautiful in some way? Why write about it?